Department of English

Fall 2004 Edition

Ascending the Touchstone

Ryan Kay
Expressive 2010 Winner

"Rope!" my partner Dave yells to me. I give him some slack on the rope so he can clip his next piece of gear. Once he has clipped the rope, I take the slack out of it and continue to belay him. From what I can tell, he has placed a large cam into a big crack. I know that this is a solid placement and will not be ripped from the crack if he falls on it. I get uneasy on the less solid pieces, such as the small 1/4" nut that he often places. He then climbs ten feet above them, making for a possible twenty-foot fall. I watch him attentively, ready to respond quickly to a fall and keep the rope from slipping through my belay device.

This is the first climb I've done being more than 150 feet off the ground. I've experienced a lot of "firsts" in the almost twenty years since I've been coming to the park. I still remember the first time, as a young child, going to Zion with my mother. I was in awe of the mesas and cliffs long before we reached the opening of the canyon, and it just got better as we came closer to the park.

I went to the Narrows on this trip and still remember the different textures of the rock walls. In one spot, there is a calcified section of rock polished by years of people from all over the world running their hands along it. In a recent trip to the Narrows, I ran my fingers across the same rock. The sense of touch triggered something in my brain. All of the sudden, my mind was flooded with memories and emotions of all the times that I’d been here. All moments were one, and they were the present. In that moment I remembered my first time touching the calcified stone as if it had just happened.

I also went canyoneering for the first time here. My friend James took me down Mystery Canyon. I had a choice between going down Mystery and going to Lagoon, a superficial theme park. It was a no-brainer. I fell in love with the backcountry canyons of Zion and have continued to explore them since. I have usually been able to explore at least one new canyon every year. I have been back to Mystery several times since, and every time it is just that, a mystery. How were these canyons carved and whittled into such beautiful form? It seems more than just a matter of consequential erosion. To me it looks and feels like art, the way the sandstone swirls and rolls around you. The flowing curves and the multi-colored layers of sandstone are akin to an abstract sculpture.

The last part of Mystery Canyon bestows a natural paradise. Its sheer towering painted sandstone cliffs intersect with bluish emerald pools at their bases. The pools are spring fed and decorated with maidenhair fern and scarlet monkeyflower. It’s as if time, Mother Nature, and the creator all worked together to create this beautiful space. They chose for their palette the complementary colors, those opposite each other on the color wheel. Blue and orange; red and green. The red monkeyflower contrasts the green ferns. The orange of the Navajo sandstone and blue of the pools appear to vibrate alongside one another. They invoke some kind of archetypal idea or emotion, some primitive feeling, some, some, something or another. It’s something that is realized by few but felt by all, something very powerful, something. Hmmm, I wonder. I try to realize and understand it all but only realize that my feeble mind can’t grasp something so deep. I realize to simply appreciate it all.

As we make it further into the climb, I find myself gazing upon some Indian Paintbrush, it’s green leaves contrasting the red rock. I am only on this cliff side for a short time, but the Indian Paintbrush will spend its life here. Its roots cleave to a slit in the rock that provides just enough water and nutrients for the plant to live. If I were a plant I’d want to live here, away from it all but, paradoxically, in the middle of it all. As I hang from the anchor belaying Dave, I let my mind wander transcendentally for hours, keeping one hand on the rope, ready to catch a fall.

We are now on the eighth pitch, about halfway up the thousand foot cliff. To this point I've been keeping my cool, but I’m anxiously anticipating free climbing the rest of the route. This means I will no longer be relying on the rope as a means to ascend the cliff. Instead, I will be climbing the rock’s face, holding on with my fingertips and stepping on minuscule protrusions in the sandstone. Dave reaches the next anchor and fixes the rope. He yells down, "Rope fixed." As I disconnect all the gear from my anchor, I load it onto my back and harness. I double check to make sure I am tied in to the rope. I then yell, “Climbing” to Dave and proceed to unclip the last carabiner holding me to the cliff. No longer able to rest any of my weight onto the rope, it’s all on me. I try not to let the overwhelming height and exposure go to my head. Despite this, my nerves are on edge, ready to react in an instant.

Pushing worries and thoughts of self-defeat out of my head, I start climbing the face. Here I am: six hundred feet off the ground, climbing at the top of my ability, keeping my balance with my fingertips while gently stepping up on the loose soft sandstone. I find myself obtaining a Zen mind state, focusing on each single movement and on the rock directly in front of me. And the rope, Damn, the rope! There must be ten feet of slack in it. I freeze. “Up rope!” I yell to Dave. “You’re cool,” he yells back. I cling to the rock while he takes the slack out of it. I feel safe again knowing that I won’t fall at least ten feet toward the canyon floor before the rope catches me. I get back into my Zen mind state and continue climbing.

I must have twenty pounds of gear on my back not including the extra 300 foot rope dangling below me. The gear hanging off my shoulder harness keeps getting in the way of bringing my legs up. It even gets wedged into the crack. I don’t notice until I make the next move and am suddenly stopped by the gear stuck in the rock. I have to climb back down, get it unstuck, and continue climbing.

I make it to the next belay station, my hands shaking and my nerves rattled. I hand Dave my daisy chain so he can clip me to the anchor. I lay back, resting on the anchor, glad to have something solid holding me to the cliff and glad to be alive and done with the first free pitch. Dave knows this is my first big wall and sees the state I’m in. He asks if I’m doing all right and I tell him that I’m nervous, but I can make it to the top. I pass up the opportunity to lead the next pitch, content with belaying once again. He rearranges all the gear and takes only what he will need for the next pitch.

After Dave has started climbing and has his first few pieces in place, I look down at the shuttles carrying the hordes of people in and out of the park. Most of the drivers make this a routine stop, pointing out the climbers to their passengers and then moving on. I see tourists taking pictures of us, so I take a picture of them. We won’t be able to make each other out in the photos but at least I will have a good shot of the shuttle. Sporting a huge cheesy smile, I snap a self-portrait with Angel’s Landing in the background. I take another of the streaming shadows created by me and the dangling ropes and gear. That will be a good one to show off to my friends. “Are you watching me?” Dave yells. “I’ve got you tied off, just snappin’ a few photos.” “Watch it.” “I’m watching you, keep climbing.”

I feel the park is much more enjoyable now that the shuttle system has been incorporated. Instead of hearing a constant drone of private vehicles, I hear only one shuttle about every fifteen minutes. Before the shuttle system was in place, there was no place to park, no room on the road to walk or ride a bike, and road raged tourists trying to see the world out of a car window. And to top it off, the beefed up rusty pickup truck spewed rich exhaust fumes from the missing part of its muffler. Canyon over-lookers could hear the monstrosity from atop Observation Point 3,000 feet above the canyon floor.

Climbing throughout the day, pitch after pitch, we work our way through the last little section. This part of the climb is crazy. Inside a set of dihedral rocks I can no longer see all the way to the canyon floor. I squeeze my body through, under, and around the maze of crumbly eroding sandstone. I climb out of the conglomerate and onto the top of Touchstone. Yes, I’ve made it!

We spend some quality time at the summit, basking in our accomplishment. I admire my surroundings: the Ponderosa Pine and the vanilla smell emanating its bark; the feeling of being above it all; the view of Angel’s Landing and the West Temple. “Yeah!” I contemplate the life the Ponderosa has lived up here, far away from humans and among the hardy desert plants and the lizards who dare brave these enormous cliffs. I think about the Russian badass, Ron Olevsky, who first ascended this spire, unknowing of what lay ahead or if it was even scalable. I try to imagine how he must have felt when he reached the top and how he came up with the name Touchstone.

“It’s all down hill from here,” Dave says to me. “Damn, don’t say that. You’re going to hex us or something.” He phrases one of his lines, “Cool and confident,” as he rappels off the edge and back down towards flat land. When he is safely tied off to the anchor below, he yells “Off rope!” I set up my rappel device and enjoy my last moment in this spot that sees so little human interaction and that I worked so hard to get to.

It doesn’t take long until we are back on the desert floor standing at the base of the cliff. We coil up our ropes and sort our gear between the two of us. Never have I felt this awkward standing on flat ground. After living in a vertical world all day, I have grown accustomed to not having a flat surface to stand on. I have to walk around to regain my balance and get used to striding instead of climbing.

I thank Dave for taking me on such an incredible climb. “Would you do it again?” he asks. “Hell yeah, I would!”

Like a cheesy movie we solemnly drive off into the sunset. We leave the park and all its wonders. We drive past the park entrance. What constitutes the park boundary? Is there something special two feet on one side of the line that’s not on the other? It’s an arbitrary matter, not worth much thought really. What does it all mean? It doesn’t matter. As we make it further out onto the highway, I contemplate how many valuable things I have learned and experienced in this area. I rescued my brother out of a ravine over there to our left on Gooseberry Mesa. As we pass Monkey Fling Mesa (named so for the test monkeys thrown off the mesa by ejection seats), I remember spending my sixteenth birthday up there around a campfire with good friends, good wine, and good scenery.

Will I continue to create such fond memories here? Are there still more experiences to be had and more to explore? Or have I already had my best times and explored the best canyons? Is it all down hill from here? No way. I don’t believe all that downhill talk. It can only get better from here, my friend.